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Reframing the regional cooperation in South Asia

Fahmida Khatun | November 05, 2023 00:00:00

Pan-South Asia regional cooperation remains paralysed by the burden of history, the legacy of bilateral tensions and the lack of initiatives to break the status quo. There is an urgent need for a rethink as regards the modalities to take the discourse on South Asian cooperation forward, taking into cognisance the new developments – both within and outside the region – which have implications for intra-regional cooperation in South Asia.

Four factors should inform the discourse on the emergent new context.

First, the political and economic situation in individual member states of South Asia;

Second, the variable geometry of cooperation involving various countries of the region;

Third, the nature of the emerging interface of South Asian countries withcountries of the neighbouring regionsand beyond; and

Fourth, how this new geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic scenario was likely to influence and inform South Asian cooperation over the foreseeable future.

The task before today’s thinkers interested in South Asian issues is to factor inthese dynamics in crafting a new strategy to broaden and deepen cooperation among the countries of the region at various levels – multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral. This may entail taking a fresh look at the definition of South Asia, the pull and push factors of regional cooperation, centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing cooperation in the region and toolsof cooperation in view of the current realities and new demands. The South Asian Economic Summit (SAES) should be seen as a unique opportunity to take on this challenging task and come up with a set of concrete recommendations to reignite attention and trigger action in this backdrop.

The traditional impediments: As a geographical entity, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region has enormous potentialand possibilities which may be harnessedthrough regional cooperation and deepened through economic integration. However, over the years, regional cooperation in South Asia has been characterised by acute political tensions, historical animosity between countries, and ongoing political and territorial disputes, resulting in a high level of trust deficit. SAARC, launched almost four decades back, has been criticised for not delivering on agreedupon programmes and for lack of initiatives to follow up on the agreed decisions. Many of the initiatives taken under the rubric of SAARC, such as the creation of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and South Asia Food Bank, have not been implemented and/or made effective as envisioned. To be true, some initiatives at bilateral and sub-regional levels,in energy, trade, and multi-modal transport connectivity, producedsome results.At the same time, a number of other initiatives, such as the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN),have stalled following some initial progress.The question that arises is whether South Asian cooperation is failing us or whether we are failing in our responsibility as think tanks to re-envision and reimagine the future of South Asian cooperation.

The SAARC process currently remains in a state of atrophy. It is almost a decade since the last (eighteenth) SAARC Summit took place in Nepal in 2014.

New drivers, new considerations, new modalities: In recent times, factors relating to internal political, economic, and institutional dynamics as well as extra-regional geo-political and geo-economicconfigurations, have become more pronounced. Further, the global economic and political order and alliances in which cooperation in the South Asian region is to take place, have been undergoing significant changes. Currently, like the rest of the world, the South Asian economies are also battling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. The war in Ukraine and subsequent global economic challenges are also having multi-dimensional impacts on South Asian economies. Countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan are facing unprecedented economic challenges. The other economies in the region are also finding it difficult to maintain macroeconomic stability and sustain the economic growth momentum experienced in the recent past. Political polarisation and revealed vulnerabilities have emerged as significant issues in many countries in South Asia. A number of these countries have gone under IMF programme and resorted to high level budgetary support from external sources. The prospect of smooth graduation of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the region (i.e., Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal) has become more challenging.

However, it needs to be also recognised that, during the Covid19 pandemic, South Asian countries did come together and cooperate among themselves, most commonly on a bilateral basis, in the areas of access to vaccines, financial support and food supply.

New geo-political developments – the growing interest of China in South Asia,on the one hand, and the Quad partnership involving India, Australia, Japan and the United States, on the other, have also infused new dimensions and tensions in the regional cooperation framework in South Asia. Indo-Pacific Strategy, as a key plank of the geo-strategic outlook of the US, has fuelled these tensions. Indeed, over the years, the roles of larger economies are becoming increasingly visible and dominant in influencing the advance of South Asian cooperation. Against the backdrop of the weakening of existing institutions and instruments, new modalities have emerged in the region. These include bilateral, plurilateral (sub-regional) and mega-regional initiatives of varying configurations ranging from bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) and sub-regional initiatives (e.g., BBIN motor vehicle agreement) to comprehensive economic partnership agreements (CEPAs) and mega-regional trade agreements (e.g., regional comprehensive economic partnership – RCEP). All these initiatives have economic and strategic impacts on South Asian countries –individually and collectively.

Concurrently, while the traditional regional cooperation issues – i.e.,trade, connectivity, water, and energy– remain on the table, a number of novel areas of engagement are coming up in a forceful way,e.g., cooperation in the areas of the public health system, structured labour market policies, expansion and deepening of supply chains,and the quest for efficiency-seeking FDI for cross border markets.Issues such as collective bargaining in global climate negotiation and tactical alliances in view of the fourth industrial revolution, which have long-term implications for South Asian countries, are also becoming important. The importance of cultural and intellectual exchanges in catalysing a regional political settlement is becoming increasingly visible. Challenges of strategic positioning of smaller South Asian economies, in view of the variable economic and strategic alliances are also demanding urgent attention.

In sum, the discourse on cooperation in South Asia can no longer remain hostage to business as usual and pathways dictated by past trends. Crafting new pathways and charting new trajectories for cooperation among countries of South Asia demand innovative approaches, the novelty of conceptualisation and a reframed empirical analysis. The knowledge actors in South Asia, along with other stakeholders, have to play a creative out-of-the-box role to capitalise on the emerging opportunities as well as to manage the attendant risks. Thus, the 14th SAES needs to step upto seekpracticable and pragmaticpolicy solutions in view of the emergent economic and political scenarios, global circumstances, and the often-uncertaindomestic political settlements.

The initiation of SAES: SAES is the pre-eminent track 1.5 initiativein South Asia which aspires to identify modalities of deepening cooperation among South Asian countries. It is a unique policy forum that brings together academics and policy activists, policymakers and diplomats, business and civil society leaders,international development partners and other personalities from the region who are keen to advance this cause.The platform was founded through the collaboration of five leading think tanks of the region, viz Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Research and Information Centre for Developing Countries (RIS), South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) and Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). It seeks to bring together, in Davos style, involved key stakeholders from the region and beyond to engage in debate and dialogue to generate innovative ideas and actionable agendas to foster and promote a South Asian identity and cooperation in different areas.

SAES, convened as an annual event, is hosted by the five core partners in their respective countries sequentially (i.e., Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). This annual event is also attended by representatives of other countries in the region, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Maldives.

The two-day fourteenth session of SAES is being organised by CPD, in Dhaka. [It started on Saturday and will end on Sunday (November 04-05, 2023)]. In the past, CPD had hosted the SAES twice, in 2011 and 2016.

Objectives of SAES XIV: The overarching objective of the SAES XIV is to search for a new South Asian Deal (Compact) in view of the emergent national, regional, and global developments. The specific objectives of SAES XIV are the followings:

l To generate a shared understanding of the changed landscape by exploringnew elements that inform national, regional, mega-regional and global contexts in which cooperation will need to take place among countries of South Asia;

l To identifyand promote modalities and potential opportunities to advance the cause of regional cooperation in South Asia; and

l To explore the roles of the knowledge actors and political leadership envisioning the journey of South Asia in the next decade.

SAES XIV includes high-profile inaugural and closing sessions, interactive plenary sessions, and parallel thematic sessions. There are also a display of publications as well as book launching, networking opportunities and cultural activities. Different sessions of SAES XIV are designed to attain the overarching and specific objectives of the Dhaka Summit. Thus, the sessions include a high-level curtain-raising inaugural sessionfocusing on emergent elements at various levels that could inform and influence cooperation among countries in South Asia.

SAES XIV in Dhaka is expected to be an excellent opportunity and a suitable platform to deliberate on the aforementioned issues to give shape to a new approach towards regional cooperation in the region in the backdrop of the emergent and emerging contexts.

Dr Fahmida Khatun is Executive Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). [email protected]. The piece is an abridged version of the Concept Note of the Fourteenth South Asia Economic Summit (SAES XIV).

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